MEDINA, Ohio — Whether they enjoy watching them or documenting them, concern among bird lovers is growing as a mysterious illness of unknown origin continues to affect songbirds all across the Midwest, including southern and central Ohio. However, for bird rescue and rehabilitation organizations like Medina Raptor Center, the threat of a mysterious illness is not only deeply worrisome, but it also comes at the worst possible time.
The non-profit Medina Raptor Center admits, rescues and rehabilitates injured and sick birds of all feathers, including hawks, eagles, owls and songbirds. The center's treatments and successes are frequently documented on social media. Among the online following's favorite moments are those in which recovered birds are set free. The late spring and summer months are among the center's busiest because birds are nesting and feeding their young, forcing them to fly around the nest site to gather food. In those travels, however, birds are often injured or sickened.
"A lot of releases coming up and we've saved a lot of birds. That's what it's all about," said Laura Jordan, the executive director of the Medina Raptor Center.
The everyday responsibilities at the center have been compounded by the threat of a looming, mysterious illness that has sickened and killed hundreds of songbirds. Ohio wildlife officials have warned the public as scientists continue to investigate the illness that has been detected in six states, including Ohio. Although the illness has been found in birds in southern and central Ohio, there are no confirmed cases in the Cleveland metro area.
The infected birds include blue jays, robins, sparrows and other songbirds.
Wildlife officials are asking people who live in affected areas to temporarily take down any bird feeders and birdbaths to prevent birds from congregating in confined spaces, much like social distancing measures that were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. For those that are living in areas where the disease has not been detected, officials have said people can still have their birdbaths and bird feeders up after a thorough cleaning using a 10% bleach solution.
"There are a lot of questions but no answers. That's what's concerning. We don't know if it's dangerous to humans. We don't know how contagious it is," Jordan said. "It is scary in a way because we went through this with West Nile Virus back in the early 2000s. That was a very frightening situation. We had our freezers full of dead birds and no one knew what was going on."
Jordan said the strange malady can kill a bird extremely quickly, making treatment next to impossible because the bird would be dead by the time it reaches the center. Even if the center's staff could treat the infected birds, Jordan said she would have serious reservations about potentially bringing the virus or bacteria inside the center.
"It is a struggle trying to figure out how to treat them. As of right now, there is no way to treat them. They die right away. We really don't want them here. I don't want to have my birds susceptible to anything that might hurt them," Jordan said. "It's hard. It really is. There is no hope for these guys. Right now, we don't have a cure. Generally speaking, by the time the bird is brought here, they're dead."
Because there is still so much to learn about the mysterious illness, state wildlife officials said ornithologists and biologists have not been able to narrow down the species most at risk. It is possible that the disease is impacting other species of birds that typically do not nest in urban or populated areas.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife has sent carcasses of birds with the suspected illness to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Sick birds can also be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator.
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